24 hours on wheels continues...
Nis Travel Blog› entry 12 of 24 › view all entries
July 19th, 2008 – by: cneoridium
I should mention that as always, this was all very difficult. It takes lots of waiting in various lines and cryptically numbered windows, questioning grumpy, non-English speaking ticket ladies, and wandering around the big railway station studying Bulgarian language time schedules (remember, you can't even make out the city names unless you can decode the Cyrillic script.
My advice here is to locate the little store run by the national railroad - you'll recognize the symbol from the trains. There are a ton of "Information Counters" at the stations, but they're all just thinly disguised travel agencies that usually service only one bus company that has one route. The federal railroad office has some English/Serbian speaking workers who can sell you a ticket right there. We were even able to book the next train from Nis to Skopija and pay all at once, something that we'd been unable to do at the regular counters in the country.
Once we located the right track we were rolling towards Macedonia! ...well, we were headed a hundred miles north and back around some mountains, but ultimately headed for Macedonia.
The hot train (I swear these cars generate their own heat) cooled as the night wore on and we began to catch glimpses of massive cliffs and rivers as we climbed into high mountains. Soon after crossing the border, with more stern looks from Serbian security, the train was creeping up an incredibly steep, narrow gorge with the train clinging to one cliff while a river separated us from a nearby, identical rock face on the other side. The moonlight revealed dense forests, craggy limestone peaks, and occasional mountain villages. We ascended into fog and drizzle as we neared Nis... or at least we hoped we were nearing Nis...
The stops are momentary, and the stations don't always have signs. We had to stay at the ready, packed and ready to jump off at each station. At midnight, we determined that one of the stations was Nis, after nervously questioning several people getting off who confirmed it - there was only a short break between our trains so we couldn't mess up...
Nis is a dreary, industrial town with a big railroad yard. Nis station at midnight isn't a pleasant place... An drunk old man would curse and yell for us to get out, struggling to get up each time we'd enter the station. With only half an hour to catch the next train we searched in vain for a schedule with track numbers, there were a lot of tracks. We really didn't want to spend miss it and spend the night there.
At least we were in Serbia, Zvonka spoke the language. She asked the guy at the ticket window which track, and the guy answered "it's late". "Well, do you know about what time it's coming and what track?" He looked her over and his face clouded "I TOLD YOU IT'S LATE, I DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ELSE!!" he growled. Asking what track it would eventually be on made him even madder It may have been something else, but Zvonka forgot that she'd been wearing a t-shirt my Croatian friend in California had sent her "San Pedro Croatian Club" with a big Croatian coat of arms on it. Between that and her accent, she was suddenly pretty unpopular. Drunk guy noticed too and redoubled his cursing and threats. We finally retreated outside into the cold when he started coming at us, fists clenched.
After a couple non-Skopje trains made really brief stops and a lot of time had passed, I decided to got back in, pretend I didn't know Zvonka, and ask the guy again. He was lot nicer, I asked in English instead of Croatian and eventually he looked at his watch, studies some index cards, and said "outside" "Tri" (3) and something I couldn't understand. I was proud to have found out it was coming on Track 3, I repeated what he said to Zvonka outside. No, he says the train isn't COMING until after 3 oclock! she said. Bad news. I checked on the track number one more time "I tell you 3, rezumiem??" he growled, again agitated. We kind of stood out in the middle, running to each train that came, and finally someone halfway confirmed "Skopije" and we piled on, exhausted and hoping it was the right one. Ready to at least catch a few hours of sleep before dawn, it was already 18 hours or so since we left the Black Sea...
Next surprise as the train pulled out and our eyes adjusted to the darkness, the train was completely packed! All of the compartments were full and the hallway was packed tight with only room to stand shoulder to shoulder. Drunks were shouting and drinking, the cars were engulfed in a cloud of cigarette smoke, and we had been told it was a 7-hour trip. It's one of those times when you're so miserable, and there's so little hope that it will end, that you wish you half hoped that the train would derail and put you out of your misery : )
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